See Ya in the Funny Papers

It’s been a while since I wrote, because I’ve been busy folding for the origami conference. Now that it’s come and gone I’ll be writing a full update soon. Bottom line it was a great time and I got a bunch of new ideas. Meanwhile, the paper of record, the venerable New York Times, sent a reporter and photographer around to see if they could locate some human interest. They interviewed my family and me among others. The article was mostly good but a bit weird, implying (unfairly) that we’re a nerdy and scruffy bunch. Ah well, any publicity is good publicity I suppose.

Master Blaster

I’m currently mastering Rocket To The Moon and Sea of Tranquility, and it’s informative because the two songs sound very different and what works for one doesn’t work for the other. So it’s a good exercise to learn this set of plugins and what to do with them. One thing I can tell you is my studio monitors don’t have enough low-end power and precision, so it’s hard to get a strong and balanced bass. So it’s alot of listening on different systems.

My good stereo upstairs has great speakers and lets me listen to a bunch of discs in shuffle mode, which is great to compare tracks, but right now the left channel seems to be on the fritz. Hope it’s just a wire but I haven’t had the chance to investigate. The downstairs stereo is almost as good – not quite as clear but good mid and bottom – but only has a single CD deck. Hoban (the Pilot) has a pretty good stereo, but the bottom is a bit muddy and I’ve been fiddling with that since I got the car and am not really satisfied yet. It supposedly has a subwoofer but I don’t even know where the speaker is. Probably somewhere stupid like under the back seat. I wonder if the phase is reversed. Or maybe it’s a virtual subwoofer with bad bass management software. The ipod with the cheap earbud headphones on a noisy train is the lowest common denominator. My train reading these days, BTW is the Mastering Engineer’s Handbook, the third in the series along with tracking and mixing.

I’ve done three shots at masters of both the songs. The second RTTM was pretty good. On my first attempt I thought the cymbals were a bit clanky and bass a bit muddy, and I ended up going back to the mix to clean that up. My signal chain includes a dynamic eq/compressor and then a compressor/limiter. I find the limiter is the single most important thing in a song with drums, since most of the peaks are on drum hits. It’s pretty easy to get an extra 3dB, but past that it’s hard. I’m realizing my mixes are already pretty hot, and the compressors start to change the sound if you put them on too thick. Two moderate compressors in series seems to work better than a single strong one.

SOT, on the other hand, was completely destroyed by the same setup. All my carefully nuanced blends of instruments, reverbs and synths were smeared into an undifferentiated gob of sonic goo while the percussion suddenly jumped out in front. I did another set of mixes last night, and I’m hoping they’ll be the ones. But I need to listen back to them.

Also, I invented a new origami model last night: two intersecting cubes from a single sheet. Awesome model, but I stayed up way too late folding.

Hot and Cold

It’s been a week of extremes here. Last week we had a heat wave that was in the upper 90’s three or four days in a row. Last Thursday the forecast high was 100. Then in the late afternoon, it got really windy like a giant Totoro just flew past. The sky got dark and branches were flying around and it cooled down 30 degrees in a matter of minutes. Overhead dark clouds were roiling and churning, and few minutes later it was pouring sheets of rain. The rain turned to hail with hailstones the size of grapes coming down until it looked like someone had spilled their drink all over the outside. Very dramatic.

We were supposed to go camping over the weekend with Martin up in the Catskills. They went up the night before, but our kids had the school spring band concert and talent show Friday night. Lizzy did a flute solo and Michelle sang and played the ukulele. Saturday morning as we were getting ready to go, Martin called to say it was raining up there and supposed to rain all day. Everything had turned to mud. So he came down to visit us and we had a rather chilly but fun BBQ. We spread out his tent to try and dry it out, but the sun never really came out.

Casiotone Nation, Part 2

Now on to the main topic, music. If you know me you know I’ve been a long time synthesizer enthusiast. From my first experience playing with a Moog in middle school I was hooked. Since then I’ve been thru many generations of gear, but of lately my rig has focused more and more on software.

Last week after our gig, Erik suggested putting together a set featuring mainly originals with some covers and, me playing piano. I have two albums worth of originals and he’s been working on a new album, so there’s plenty of material. This fits in well with an idea I’ve been working on, of getting together a group to play out live, doing substantially my own material. I’ve been wondering how to get started, and thinking this kind of thing often works better with a partner. This is perfect; we can get a set together and play a few gigs, and then start looking for a rhythm section to take it to the next level. So the time is right.

Only problem is, my gear is all pretty old. In particular, my main keyboard is a vintage Fender Rhodes 73 Suitcase electric piano. I got it used about 20 years ago when it was the best thing out there for playing piano-ish things with a rock band, and used to gig out with it regularly. (Digital pianos back then were either crappy of way too expensive, or both.) Now the Rhodes has become something of a collector’s item, and also it could use a bit of a tune up to get the action and pickups tip top again. In any event, I don’t really want to take it around to gigs because 1.) it’s really heavy and 2.) it will eventually get destroyed.

So I went shopping for a new keyboard. I’d been looking into this for a while already. I wanted a keyboard controller for doing studio recording, since my old one (a Roland Juno for the 80’s, another classic) is getting long in the tooth, and was looking for a full-on 88 key hammer action keyboard, and if had a good built-in piano and Rhodes sound, that’d be nice too. Once I started looking, I discovered there’s a category called digital stage piano, which is pretty much exactly this. They go as expensive as you wanna get, but I was looking for something that’d fit into my budget.

I hate shopping, and usually my strategy is to take my best shot at figuring out what I want and show up at the store and see what’s the best match, and just get it over with. So I went to my local guitar center and walked into their keyboard room. The best one there was a Casio Privia PX-330. Casio is mainly known for their digital watches and cheap synthesizers, but they make high-end keyboards too, and at a resaonable price compared to some other makes. I had a Casio CZ-1000 back in the 80’s that was a fantastic keyboard, one of the first generation of programmable, polyphonic digital synthesizers. The 330 had good action and good sound, particularly its grand pianos, and it had a pitch wheel, which is important for when I track synth parts. On the downside, the selection of Rhodes, clavs and organs was so-so, and it had a built-in sequencer I had no need for.

I brought it home and played it and was pretty satisfied, but then I went online to learn more about it, and it was then I discovered the PX-3. This looked to be just the axe for me. It doesn’t have the 330’s sequencer, but instead sports large, deep banks of Rhodes, clavs and organs. It also has lots of built-in tweak controls including brilliance and velocity curves, a four-band EQ, and an effects unit with phase/flanger, so I could for example get the sound for “No Quarter”. And pretty blue lights too. Only problem, it was a limited edition model, and no one had them in stock. I really didn’t wasn’t into the idea of buying an axe without auditioning it.

Luckily my office in midtown Manhattan is right near music row, the historic home of the music stores, although in the last few years they’ve all be bought up by Sam Ash. (The first time I worked at MTV back in the 90’s I ran an interactive music R&D lab where we invented Guitar Hero ten years before its time. My first day on the job I went down to Manny’s and bought 50k worth of gear). Manny’s is now the Sam Ash keyboard store, and they have a much bigger demo room than anyone else. And it turned out they had a PX-3 to demo. I was really blown away. The action was better and, while the grand pianos were basically the same, the electric pianos were just phenomenal. The No Quarter sound is one of the presets! They had one in stock too, so I bought it on the spot and brought it home, first schlepping it back to my office, then down to Grand Central and home on the train. When unpacked it, I learned Casio made only 3,000 of them, and mine has a serial number in the 2,000’s, so I was lucky to get it at all. Guitar Center took my 330 back no problem, and the kids had a fun time checking out all the instruments.

So I’ve been getting to know my new axe. Now it’s on to the question of the set list…

Casiotone Nation, Part 1

A few things before I get to the main point of this post, which is about shopping for a new synthesizer. First, thanks to everyone for the enthusiastic response to the publication of my first origami book, Zing Origami, on kindle, android and iOS formats.

Next, just to bring you up to date in the life-and-times department, I’ve been pretty focused on work the last month, and we just had a big demo/review session Friday. In some sense, however it’s a losing game. The better the code I write, the smaller and weirder the bugs that rise up to bother me on the one hand, and the larger and deeper the strategic problems I have to beat my head against on the other. Ah well I guess that’s what I’m there for, and I should be grateful things are on an even keel. Next week starts summer Fridays!

Thursday nite was a carnival at the kid’s new school where they’ll be going in September. It was really nice, with high class midway carnival rides (the kind that roll in on a tractor trailer), games, food, etc. It goes on for four days, and is apparently the major fundraiser for the school, and the local police and fire department get involoved and everything. The first night was largely for families of the school, so they sent out an invite to families of new students. The kids had a great time and we met a bunch of new patents and students. So it was a very positive scene. The kids are gonna be in for a shock come September when the find out they gotta do math homework just like any other school. Speaking of which, Lizzy placed out of her math final, which was the following day, on account of her having an “A” average.

Today was a street fair in our neighborhood that included a classic car show. Lots of 60’s and 70’s muscle cars, and a few souped-up 80’s cars, and a few from the 50’s and before. The was a ’71 Boss Mustang, a giant 60’s Lincoln Continental and a Model A Ford, but I think my favorite was a white 1960 Jaguar V-12.

Yesterday we spent the whole day on yardwork, the big trimming and weeding session. We seem to need to do this about 3x/summer and this was the first. It was also big trimming day for the neighbor’s landscaper, and he saved me a bunch of time and effort by doing all the hedges on the border of our property. This is a job he’s technically supposed to do, but usually skips if he thinks he can get away with it, but since I was out today and talked to him about it, he was very friendly and helpful.

Since my new book is out, I need to add a new page to my website to promote it. I went to go ahead and start making it, only to discover that the web server on my computer wasn’t working (macs these days run an Apache server). After some spelunking, Jeannie and I determined that there was a problem with Apache, namely that the directory for the log files didn’t exist. We figured this was a side effect of my recent hard drive upgrade. The next problem was that when we went to create the log directory in the Unix shell the command failed (silently). After some more spelunking, we determined that the problem was sudo didn’t work becuase my system password was blank. So once I changed my password to something with more than zero characters I was able to crate the directory and Apache started working again. Then we had to get my PHP going again, and next is my MySQL instance. Yeesh. Stupid computers.